Question the Cannasseur: Working in the Cannabis Industry

Woman at cannabis Job interview

On Quora this week, many people are curious about careers in the cannabis industry. Honestly, there's no better time than the present to start asking these types of questions. While the cannabis industry is still in infancy stages, it is growing at break-neck speed. In fact, according to statistics, about 230,000 people worked in the cannabis industry in 2017, and the demand for cannabis and hemp products is growing just as fast; so, we can only assume the need for workers is going to increase as well.

In honor of the cannabis industry's contribution to the decreased unemployment in the United States, let's answer a couple of questions about jobs in the cannabis industry.

What is it Like Working for a Cannabis Company?

I started working in the cannabis industry almost three years ago. Ironically enough, before this, I spent 20 years fighting and clawing my way up the corporate ladder. Although I worked for various industries, including higher education, manufacturing, and agriculture, I ended my corporate career as the IT Manager for a sizeable affluent city in Minnesota. My staff handled all the tech systems which helped our city operate – everything from utilities billing, to police and fire systems, to retail for municipal liquor sales – our department had a broad range of responsibilities. Needless to say, after a career like that, there were a few audible gasps as my previous colleagues learned what I was doing in Denver.

In addition to my professional experiences, I have also worked as a bartender, a waitress, a grocery clerk, a graphic designer, and even mutual bets attendant at a horse track. I have had a broad range of experience in a wide variety of industries over the course of 30 years. So, I have a reasonably good cross-reference to compare to the cannabis industry.

Kristina Etter at Lucy Sky working
Kristina Etter
I started as a budtender in a recreational dispensary designed for tourism. This establishment was an upscale, high-energy, fun atmosphere where we wanted our customers to relish in the experience of visiting a legal cannabis dispensary. We made a production out of it, and it was closer to working in entertainment than I've ever been. In this environment, we were encouraged to talk about product potency, taste, and effect – but we were actively discouraged from talking about any medical benefit or ailment treatment. Our compliance officer made sure that we didn't cross any boundaries by talking about medical terms in a recreational dispensary.

The Unexpected

Here are a few things that surprised me about working in that dispensary.

  • Don't trust strain names – Dispensaries will sometimes rename them at random to increase sales. If "Agent Orange" has a negative connotation, they'll rename it to "Agent 007" or some other cheesy name to peak your interest.
  • Budtenders get very little training – Beyond compliance, proper sales techniques, and vendor-led training sessions about how to sell their products, very few budtenders get any “real” training in cannabis besides their personal use. (I'll get to the issues with this in my next answer.)
  • To tourists, you're a rockstar – It doesn't matter what position you hold in the cannabis industry if you tell someone from a non-legal state that you work in cannabis, you instantly gain mystique.
  • To the opposition, you're a Drug Dealer – Be prepared, because to all those who know nothing about the legal industry or who oppose it, they are going to label you. In fact, my husband and I lost a lot of friends when we came to Colorado. The folks from Willie's Reserve put it best in one of my training sessions when they reminded everyone in the room, "Every morning when you put on that badge, you are a federal outlaw." They are right, and many will judge you for it.

The Benefits

Naturally, everyone wants to know about the benefits of working in the industry, and frankly, the fringe benefits are a big motivation for many people to get into the industry. Just please don't make it your only motivation – too many people are counting on the industry for misguided intentions.

  • The Discounts – Just like any other retail industry, most times employees in the cannabis industry get discounts on products from their associated dispensary. In fact, some dispensaries will honor discounts to anyone carrying a valid Colorado MED badge.
  • The Samples – Yes, as a budtender you are expected to understand how the products work, and typically this means through actually using the products. While some budtenders can sell products without using them, it's rare. As such, the vendors are always willing to supply dispensary employees with sample products.
  • The Industry Events – Multiple cannabis-centric companies hold regular cannabis-friendly events for people in the industry to mingle, network, and learn about new products in the field. My husband and I once hot-boxed a shower at Nativ hotel with three other people from cannabis companies. It was an experience which will live with me forever!
  • The Free Smells – I understand many people do not enjoy the smell of marijuana. I, on the other hand, love it! There was never a single day that I walked into my dispensary where I didn't enjoy that first waft of aroma walking through the door.

The Boring

Believe it or not, working in cannabis is still just a job with the typical responsibilities you might find at any other position. A dispensary is a retail establishment and working in one is really no different, except you have a lot more cameras watching your every move. You may have to clean toilets or mop floors, countdown a cash register, or do inventory. Here are a few mundane, tedious tasks which the cannabis industry has to do that other industries don't:

  • No, you can't be stoned on the job. Regardless of the false propaganda, budtenders are not high at work – or at least they aren't supposed to be. While many budtenders are medical consumers, they won't be incoherent on the job – there are too many responsibilities and opportunities for error. (Again, I'll touch base on this later.)
  • Dispensaries are ridiculously secure. By law, all cannabis products must be stored under lock and key, so all those products that sit out on shelves, the jars of marijuana flower, and anything else containing THC must be moved to secured storage in the back every night, and replaced on the shelves the next morning.
  • Following compliance is critical. As a badged employee in the cannabis industry, you take an oath to follow the letter of the law, and that means compliance. If you fail to do so, it can result in hefty fines and even criminal charges on you personally – not your boss, not your employer, but YOU.

marijuana bud on yellow background

Working in the cannabis industry is a fun, rewarding, and high-energy career. Although I am no longer a budtender in Denver, as a writer for the industry, I enjoy the pace, the constant change, and the overall explosive growth. More than anything, I enjoy meeting other people in the industry and learning the stories behind why we are all here – because most of us have a great story of triumph to tell.

However, through my experiences, I have also seen the ugly side of cannabis...

What’s the Biggest Mistake You See Budtenders Make?

This is a phenomenal question and one that sits near and dear to my heart. As a former budtender and a medical cannabis consumer for three years now, there are a plethora of pain points found in the front end of the industry. Budtenders are a critical piece to the puzzle, but unfortunately, many of them do not understand just how significant their role is to the future of cannabis.

  1. They forget they are the face of the cannabis industry. Budtenders, if you don't think you’re "secret-shopped" by law enforcement, lawmakers, and others with authority to shut you down, you are only fooling yourself and putting the industry at risk. If you're not behaving appropriately and acting professionally while you're on the job, you aren't just risking your career, you're risking a black eye on the entire industry.
  2. They forget it's a job, and not a social event. I cannot tell you the number of times I've been standing in a dispensary waiting to be served only to listen to the budtenders giggling over their drunken shenanigans the night before. Often, customers are seeking relief from a troubling symptom – they may be in pain, or frustrated, or anxious, or whatever – and they could really care less about your social life. Stay focused, your clients depend on you.
  3. They provide too little information. If you're selling a customer an edible and you're not asking about their experience level with edibles, you're not doing your job. If you're not explaining to your customers how to consume responsibly, you're not doing them any favors either, and you're risking another blemish on the cannabis industry when that consumer is compelled to call 911 because you didn't inform them not to eat the whole thing.
  4. They provide the wrong information. Budtenders, if you're not studying your products outside of your working hours, you are missing the point. You need to be able to answer the tough questions about cannabis. You need to know your cannabinoids and your terpenes – you need to know their effects, and you need to be able to communicate them to your customers.
  5. They don't understand their audience. I realize "stoner culture" is a part of the cannabis industry, however, with more than 300% increase in seniors looking to cannabis, if you want to be taken seriously by your customers, you need to play the part. Seniors do NOT want to seek medical advice from a sloppy, 22-year-old who didn't comb his hair before coming to work that day. You have to be able to relate to your customers if you want to be successful.

Where the Blame Lies

Fortunately, the blame isn't solely on the budtender. One cannot expect too much from a person who can make the same wage slinging burgers at McDonald's or stocking shelves at Walmart. The cannabis industry needs to recognize how valuable budtenders are to their business and start paying them an appropriate wage, as well as, provide them with the necessary cannabis training they need to do their job professionally. Do you think pharmacists make $12.00/hour? No, because they are entrusted to be educated and professional about helping people use medications appropriately. Budtenders are expected to do the same, but at fast food wages? There is something wrong with this picture.

I am confident as the cannabis industry continues to grow, we will see many positions evolve and change as time passes.

Thanks again for the fantastic questions! If you want to Question a Cannasseur, look me up on Quora, ask your question, and maybe we'll choose your question for one of our topics!